300 U.S. 617 (1937), 103, District of Columbia v. Clawans

Docket NºNo. 103
Citation300 U.S. 617, 57 S.Ct. 660, 81 L.Ed. 843
Party NameDistrict of Columbia v. Clawans
Case DateApril 05, 1937
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 617

300 U.S. 617 (1937)

57 S.Ct. 660, 81 L.Ed. 843

District of Columbia

v.

Clawans

No. 103

United States Supreme Court

April 5, 1937

Argued November 18, 1936

Reargued March 1, 1937

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Syllabus

1. The offense of engaging, without a license, in the business of a dealer in second-hand personal property, defined by the Code of the District of Columbia, punishable by a fine of not more than $300 or imprisonment of not more than 90 days, is to be classed as a petty offense which, consistently with Art. III, § 2, cl. 3, of the Constitution, may be tried without a jury. P. 624.

2. In determining whether an offense is a petty offense that constitutionally may be tried without a jury, the severity of the penalty inflictable, as well as the moral quality of the act and its relation to common law crimes, should be considered. P. 625.

Page 618

3. Engaging in the business of selling second-hand property without a license was not indictable at common law. Today it is, at most, but an infringement of local police regulations, and its moral quality is relatively inoffensive. P. 625.

4. In England and in the American States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, confinement for a period of 90 days or more was not an unusual punishment for petty offenses, tried without a jury. P. 626.

5. The question whether an offense is triable without a jury is unaffected by the fact that the offender is not entitled to an appeal as of right; it must be assumed that, in a proper case, authority in the appellate court to allow an appeal will be exercised. P. 627.

6. Assuming that, with change of the common attitude towards severity of punishment, a petty offense which, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, would have been triable without a jury may come within the provision of the Constitution requiring jury trial, the existence of such change must be determined by objective standards such as may be seen in the laws and practices of the community taken as a gauge of its social and ethical judgments. P. 627.

The Act of Congress applicable to this case, and statutes in force in the States and in England, together with numerous state court decisions, are examined, and are persuasive that there has been no such change in the generally accepted standards of punishment as would overcome the presumption that a summary punishment of 90 days' imprisonment, permissible when the Constitution was adopted, is permissible now.

7. Common experience teaches that testimony delivered against a defendant in a criminal case by private police or detectives, acting in the course of their private employment, is open to the suspicion of bias, especially when uncorroborated, and the cross-examination of such witnesses, bearing directly on substantial issues, should not be summarily curtailed. P. 630.

8. While the extent of cross-examination rests in the sound discretion of the trial judge, in this case, discretion was abused, and the error prejudicial. P. 632.

Throughout the trial, rulings of the judge prevented cross-examination in appropriate fields and excluded questions bearing on the credibility of witnesses for the prosecution and on the commission by the accused of the acts charged.

66 App.D.C. 11, 84 F.2d 265, affirmed.

Page 619

Certiorari, 299 U.S. 524, to review a judgment reversing a conviction in the Police Court of the District of Columbia. The opinion disapproves of the reason given by the court below, but affirms the reversal upon another ground which that court deemed unsubstantial.

Page 623

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent was convicted in the District of Columbia police court of engaging, without a license, in the business of a dealer in second-hand personal property, to-wit, the unused portions of railway excursion tickets, in violation of § 7, par. 39, of the Act of Congress, approved July 1, 1902, 32 Stat. 622, 627, c. 1352, as amended by the Act of July 1, 1932, 47 Stat. 550, 558, c. 366. On arraignment, she demanded a jury trial, which was denied, and on conviction she was sentenced to pay a fine of $300 or to be confined in jail for sixty days. The case was brought to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by writ of error to review the denial of the respondent's request for a jury, and other rulings of the trial court which, it was claimed, had deprived her of a fair trial. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, holding that a jury trial was guaranteed to petitioner by the Constitution, but that the trial had been fair in other respects. 66 App.D.C. 11, 84 F.2d 265. We granted certiorari.

The statute under which petitioner was convicted provides that the offense may be prosecuted in the District of Columbia police court and is punishable by a fine of not more than $300 or imprisonment for not more than ninety days. The Code of the District of Columbia

Page 624

(1929) Tit. 18, § 165, provides that prosecutions in the police court shall be on information and that the trial shall be by jury in all cases "in which, according to the Constitution of the United States, the accused would be entitled to a jury trial," and that,

in all cases where the accused would not, by force of the Constitution of the United States, be entitled to a trial by jury, the trial shall be by the court without a jury, unless in . . . cases wherein the fine or penalty may be more than $300, or imprisonment as punishment for the offense may be more than ninety days, the accused shall demand a trial by jury, in which case the trial shall be by jury.

Article III, § 2, clause 3, of the Constitution, provides that "the Trial of all Crimes, except in cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury." The Sixth Amendment declares that,

in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.

It is settled by the decisions of this Court, which need not now be discussed [57 S.Ct. 662] in detail, that the right of trial by jury thus secured does not extend to every criminal proceeding. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, there were numerous offenses, commonly described as "petty," which were tried summarily without a jury, by justices of the peace in England, and by police magistrates or corresponding judicial officers in the Colonies, and punished by commitment to jail, a workhouse, or a house of correction.1 We think, as the Court of Appeals held and

Page 625

respondent concedes, that, apart from the prescribed penalty, the offense of which petitioner was convicted is, by its nature, of this class, and that were it not for the severity of the punishment, the offender could not, under our decisions, claim a trial by jury as of right. Schick v. United States, 195 U.S. 65, and see Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, 552, 555; Natal v. Louisiana, 139 U.S. 621, 624; District of Columbia v. Colts, 282 U.S. 63, 72-73.

Engaging in the business of selling second-hand property without a license was not indictable at common law. Today it is, at most, but an infringement of local police regulations, and its moral quality is relatively inoffensive. But this Court has refused to foreclose consideration of the severity of the penalty as an element to be considered in determining whether a statutory offense, in other respects trivial and not a crime at common law, must be deemed so serious as to be comparable with common law crimes, and thus to entitle the accused to the benefit of a jury trial prescribed by the Constitution. See Schick v. United States, supra, 67-68.

We are thus brought to the question whether the penalty, which may be imposed for the present offense, of ninety days in a common jail, is sufficient to bring it within the class of major offenses, for the trial of which a jury may be demanded. The court below thought, as we do, that the question is not free from doubt, but concluded, in view of the fact that the statute allows no appeal as of right from the conviction for the offense, and in view of its own estimate of the severity of the penalty, that three months' imprisonment is a punishment sufficiently rigorous to place respondent's delinquency in the category of major offenses.

If we look to the standard which prevailed at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, we find that confinement for a period of ninety days or more was not an unusual

Page 626

punishment for petty offenses, tried without a jury. Laying aside those for which the punishment was of a type no longer commonly employed, such as whipping, confinement in stocks, and the like, and others, punished by commitment for an indefinite period, we know that there were petty offenses, triable summarily under English statutes, which carried possible sentences of imprisonment for periods from three to twelve months.2 At least sixteen statutes, passed prior to the time of the American Revolution by the Colonies, or shortly after by the newly created states, authorized the summary punishment of petty offenses by imprisonment for three months or more.3 And at least eight others were punishable by [57 S.Ct. 663] imprisonment for six months.4

In the face of this history, we find it impossible to say that a ninety-day penalty for a petty offense, meted out

Page 627

upon a trial without a jury, does not conform to standards which prevailed when the Constitution was adopted, or was not then contemplated as appropriate notwithstanding the constitutional guarantee of a jury trial. This conclusion is unaffected by the fact that respondent is not entitled to an appeal as of right. Code of the District of Columbia (1929) Tit. 18, § 28. The safeguards of an appeal are different in nature and purpose from those of a jury trial. At common law,...

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